AKRON—Do the words "electronic age" send a shiver down your spine? Do your eyes glaze over when someone starts talking "computerese"?
Does a phrase like, "I got my modem workin'|" make you think of a dance routine, rather than bits and bytes?
Relax. You're probably not a "geek."
And rest assured that if you prefer the good old-fashioned way of doing business with your tire suppliers—that is, by picking up that almost-obsolete mechanism known as a telephone, or through up-front and personal face-to-face meetings with your account reps—you'll still be able to do that for quite some time. Perhaps forever.
But increasingly, tire manufacturers, suppliers and distributors are turning to the Internet as an adjunct to how they've always conducted business. Through their Web sites, many companies offer a quick, easy way to electronically bond with their customers and/or consumers by keeping them up to date on products, marketing programs, inventory, advertising, etc.
Tire Business contacted several tire makers, and one of the nation's largest tire distributors, to find out how they're doing business on the Web. None offer computer hardware to dealers to get them into the electronic age. Some firms did at one time but found they were becoming computer rather than tire jockeys.
Almost to a company, each attempted to reassure their dealers that while the Net is a new horizon with seemingly limitless possibilities, there will always be a place for conducting business either in person or on the phone. But unlike traditional office hours, the Web's a round-the-clock operation that never sleeps.
Heafner Tire Group
In December 1996, when some companies were still talking about making electronic ease of ordering a possibility for their customers, Heafner was launching HeafNet—a Windows-based system providing dealers with access to inventory information, current balances, receivables and payables, invoices, and tire- and wheel-fitment data.
Then last fall at the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week shows in Las Vegas, Charlotte, N.C.-based Heafner illustrated how serious it was about its "e-commerce" business by unveiling "Heafner Interactive."
The operation is directed by Bill Paule, who came onboard Heafner via its 1998 acquisition of California's Competition Parts Warehouse, where he had developed "Wheel Wizard," a computer program to match custom wheels to vehicles.
While HeafNet, which has been converted to an Internet-based system, is strictly for dealer customers, Heafner has three consumer-accessible Web sites for its private label wheel products. Other sites—for the company's Winston and Regul brands and divisional and corporate sites—are in development.
"The big advantage for us is using the Internet to build brand awareness for these proprietary brands," said Dan Brown, senior vice president of sales and marketing. "It allows us to gain national exposure for the brands and connect consumers back to dealers in the marketplace."
The company's various sites get more than 1,000 direct online inquiries each month from consumers looking for dealers via the sites' dealer locators. Those include maps to stores once a consumer has typed in either a phone number or zip code, Mr. Paule said. If a dealer has a Web site, it can be linked to Heafner's, but he said thus far "very, very few dealers are providing Web site addresses.
"Of the more than 1,000 dealers in the locator system now, with the exception of our Winston stores, I can count on two hands the number of dealers who've provided us with their URLs (Web addresses).
"A lot of them are small independent dealers, and building a Web site is not something they've focused on."
"For many dealers (Heafnet) was the first computer they had," Mr. Brown added. "It helped them enter the electronic age."
He said Heafner has the following e-commerce objectives, which it plans to institute in three phases:
Continually upgrade HeafNet to become a portal that ultimately "links our sales to our dealers then back upstream to manufacturers;"
Get proprietary brands Web sites up and running; and
Provide Web site creation services for dealers.
The Internet creates an ease of doing business, Mr. Brown said. More than 1,700 dealers are now connected to HeafNet, but that's but a small percentage of Heafner's 35,000-plus customers—"which shows the upside of the opportunity here."
Orders billed through the system in August totaled $6.1 million, he said, and that volume only includes Heafner's East Coast operations because the company has not yet taken HeafNet to its Midwest and Western divisions due to incompatible computer systems. It expects to introduce HeafNet to the West Coast this fall and the Midwest in the first quarter of next year.
When fully functional, "this electronically connected network of independent dealers will be the largest in the country," Mr. Brown predicted.
But it won't replace outside sales people. "Dealers still need that personalized support and visitation, but this will enhance it...," he said. "It'll be a long time before our entire customer base gets into this electronic world we live in.
"The fact is, a lot of people enjoy the relationship they've built over the phone and in person. We won't take that away from them."
"Social interaction is important and always will be," Mr. Paule said.
Consumers cannot buy products online from Heafner. The objective of the company's e-commerce ventures, he said, is "to support dealers affiliated with us in the marketplace who are handling our lines and brands, and be a vehicle for connecting consumers back to the dealers."
Continental General Tire Inc. (CGT) recently redesigned its corporate Web site (www.contigentire.com) including its Conti and General brands sections which are targeted at consumers.
According to a CGT spokeswoman, the site enables consumers to locate nearby dealers, access tire fitment guides and get basic education on tires, such as what the numbers and letters mean on a sidewall.
"One focus of our efforts is to bring across our brand message," she said.
New features for dealers accessing the site include a list of CGT's original equipment fitments; a search engine; an education center; tire catalogs; a fitment guide; details on promotions and advertising/marketing programs; warranty, UTQG and size information; and photos, in three views, of tires.
Jeff Miller, CGT's marketing manager, passenger and commercial tires, said a dealers-only informational and promotional Web site is about 80 percent completed, should be functional by the first quarter of 2001, and will allow the creation of ad slicks.
Another business-to-business (B2B) site being designed will allow dealers to do online ordering, check inventory, track orders, claims management and adjustments, and provide access to current promotions.
"We're spending a lot of time focusing on what dealers need and want to accomplish," he said. "We don't want them spending a lot of time trying to find things."
CGT is working closely with its Continental A.G. parent in Germany on the online ordering component, he added, "in order to connect to our back-office operations."
While a site for consumers to buy tires direct from CGT has been discussed, Mr. Miller said there are currently no plans to put that in place. "We want to make sure it would enhance the business of our dealers. One thing we don't want to do is cut them out of the loop. One criteria is that it should drive business to the dealers."
Michelin North America
The readily recognized Michelin mascot "Bibendum" happens to be the name behind the company's Extranet site, BIB NET.
Access to the dealer-only site is gained through an icon on a customer's computer screen which launches a browser. A user identification code is needed to get into the private network. Although the site will be going to the World Wide Web, dealers won't need to type in a www-type Web address since it is a closed site.
Michelin is testing the Internet version with two dealerships and expects to begin "very aggressively rolling out BIB NET" by early 2001, said Tom Hall, manager of electronic commerce development.
BIB NET covers all the company's tire lines excluding those for two-wheel vehicles. It features "real time" order entry, inventory management, and allows dealers to check credits, invoices, turn in claims. "Virtually, dealers can do everything that they can do with a customer service rep," he said. An order import function allows dealers to create, with their computer, a purchase order that can be sent to BIB NET.
On Sept. 5, ASA Tire Systems, a division of ASA International Ltd. in Nashua, N.H., announced it had completed an interface between both its TireMax and TirePro business applications software and BIB NET. It allows product fulfillment requests to be transferred directly from the ASA purchase order module to BIB NET, which then sends an electronic confirmation to the ASA software.
One big advantage of BIB NET: the site is available about 21 hours a day, seven days a week.
Thus far, about 45 percent of the tire maker's dealers have installed BIB NET, which Mr. Hall said "has been built specifically for the independent dealer channel."
The goal in 2001 is to expand BIB NET to customers such as wholesale clubs and mass merchandisers.
If there is any drawback to e-commerce, Mr. Hall said "you lose a little of the personal touch.... But we're still here—that's the plus side. If you still want to talk to us, we're ready to take that phone call."
Doing business electronically "is fairly easy, inexpensive, and you can get a whole lot of information a lot quicker. I don't see many downsides."
As the technology evolves, he foresees tighter integration between manufacturers' and dealers' computer systems. "That's where you cut the administrative burden and fat out of it."
Akron-based Goodyear's XPLOR system—a private Web site on the open Internet that can be entered only with a user identification and password—allows users to perform a wide range of functions, chiefly information delivery, order management and administrative processing.
Development of XPLOR began in late 1997 and the system went live in May 1998.
It provides dealers with full access to Goodyear's marketing and advertising programs, products, services, policies, merchandising, and a "What's New" page that's updated daily. "Literally thousands of our documents have been published electronically which dealers can access and search," explained Rick Godic, manager of the company's Extranet systems.
Much of what's on the site is information dealers traditionally received in the mail. Some of it they still get that way; some is only available now electronically. Submission of a national account claim, for example, can only be done electronically.
Recent additions to the site include a government sales price list and national account manual. Dealers also can track quarterly and annual incentive programs.
Mr. Godic said a "bulletin board" feature allows dealers to post for sale any excess and "oddball" inventory they might have in their warehouses and stores, or ask for merchandise they're seeking.
"It helps move surplus merchandise—and we don't even take a cut of the action," he joked.
Through XPLOR, Goodyear has "seen double-digit growth, month after month, when it comes to order inquiries and placing orders," he said, though that's still a relatively small percentage of the total order inquiries it receives.
The tire maker's phone-in center has traditionally been a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. operation, he said. XPLOR has allowed the business day to go from 12 hours to 24.
Goodyear is not currently selling directly to consumers via the Web but "that's something that's always under consideration," according to a spokesman.
"There's no question" customers benefit from using XPLOR, Mr. Godic said. "The best gauge is customer utilization and adoption—if they're doing it electronically, they're doing it because it's easier, an added convenience."
They see product availability in real time, and "that's something you don't get when you fax in an order, so there's an added value there.
"If we took XPLOR away," he believes, "we'd have a lot of dealers complaining because they've grown accustomed to this kind of access."
So far, about 1,600 dealers plus 900 company-owned locations use XPLOR. "Our objective is to get 2,700 Goodyear dealers," he said.
However, "dealers will always need a voice option to do some problem solving."
Only tires and advertising merchandise can be ordered via XPLOR. But Goodyear's Gemini automotive service operation has auto parts purchase arrangements with some suppliers, and Mr. Godic said eventually some of those could be integrated into XPLOR "to create a portal so dealers can purchase more than just tires.
"That's the type of strategy that will continue to evolve—to become more of a `one-stop shop.'|"
Yokohama Tire Corp.
Fullerton, Calif.-based Yokohama's Internet efforts are currently confined to a consumer Web site (www.yokohamatire.com) containing fitment information and a dealer locator, but no ability to directly order tires.
A B2B site for dealers is in the planning stages, said Lynn Sweeney, manager of marketing communications. The project's first phase will provide a quick, easy way to get information about Yokohama "that's relevant to dealers, not consumers." Eventually, it might include order entry, inventory management and other functions.
Yokohama is eyeing a launch date in the first quarter of 2001.
A key focus of the consumer site is its educational component, providing an easy way for motorists to learn about tires and appropriate fitments for their vehicles, Ms. Sweeney said.
For dealers, the company launched a rewards program in July it's calling "rpm"—for Rewarding Performance Membership.
While not an Internet-based program, it provides salespersons at Yokohama-affiliated dealerships with "the opportunity to learn and earn by selling qualified high-performance tires." They then can redeem incentive credits by shopping online at the Flooz.com Web site.
In order to participate, a dealer needs an e-mail address.
Cooper Tire & Rubber
Cooper's admittedly at the "infant stage" in providing dealers with an electronic system allowing them to let their fingers do the ordering through their computers.
The Findlay, Ohio-based firm's sole Web site draws several different audiences, said Debbie Crow, corporate communications manager, who oversees the site (www.coopertire.com.)
Though Cooper's tire site assists dealers, "it's basically there to help consumers," she said. According to the firm, the Web site "draws thousands of hits each month by consumers looking for their nearest Cooper dealer."
However, last May a new "Dealer Connect" password-protected section was implemented. It allows Cooper dealers to access advertising information, view TV commercials and hear Cooper radio ads, download newspaper ad slicks for use in localized media, and use links to other product information.
Ultimately, Ms. Crow said, the goal is for dealers to be able to open Dealer Connect, keep it open on their computers all day and conduct any Cooper-related business from one screen rather than having to jump to different sections.
She called one of the site's biggest features its tire selector, which matches a tire to a consumer's vehicle. The site also includes a dealer locator and hot links to dealership Web sites.
Cooper does offer dealers a Web creation service through the Berry Network, a company that assists the tire maker's dealers with Yellow Pages ad placements across the country. Dealers can subscribe to any of three packages, at varying prices, for Web site development.
There is no initiative in place for consumers to buy tires online directly from Cooper. Cooper's longtime philosophy "has always been to facilitate its independent dealers," Ms. Crow said.
"We're very proud of that track record, and want to reassure dealers that our one-on-one customer service will never be diminished because of any Web activities we might have."
Use of the Internet will simply "enhance our relationship with dealers and give them options. In no way will it replace what we have in place.|.|.|. We don't want dealers feeling they can only deal with us through a computer."
The advantages to having an informational Web site have never been more explicit than with the predicament in which Nashville, Tenn.-based Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. (BFS) has found itself.
As the saga of its voluntary 6.5-million-tire recall effort has played out in front of Congressional hearings in Washington and in the news media, the tire maker has continued to use its corporate Web site (www.bridgestone-firestone.com)—as well as two other sites: firestone.com or firestonetire.com—to keep consumers apprised of the recall's status.
The sites "have been the most important part of trying to distribute information to the masses at a time like this," a BFS spokeswoman said. They include updated news, company statements, and BFS' recall reimbursement policy along with instructions and forms and a locator for consumers to find tire retailers.
Amid the turmoil, the tire maker also is in the process of conducting a pilot test of a relatively new system it calls "Entirenet" (accessible via www.bfentirenet.com).
Currently, only about five dealers can use Entirenet for order entries, but the BFS spokeswoman said more than 1,000 other dealers are able to access basic account information on the site, including pricing, product catalogs, as well as details about international and national account and fleet programs.
Other features include the ability to check the status of orders and shipments enroute and sign up for online seminars. Dealers need a password and a six-digit number, assigned by BFS, in order to gain access to the site.
Meanwhile, BFS' Firestone Agricultural Tire Co. in Des Moines, Iowa, recently redesigned and enhanced the Web site (www.firestoneag.com) it launched in 1995.
Designed both for dealers and consumers, the site features a "What's Hot? What's New?" section that changes weekly.
Site visitors can use interactive farm tire and forestry tire profilers to determine the right tire for individual applications.
The site also includes: technical bulletins; tire-testing data; a tire data book with searchable index; customer testimonials; promotions; spotlights on dealers; dealer and district sales manager locator; an "Ask the experts" forum; Future Farmers of America scholarship applications; and information on the "Firestone University" training program.
Dealers also can access—via a link on the Web site and a special login and password—a "Certified Dealer Support Center" that includes technical and warranty data, sales incentive programs and training opportunities. They can print order forms but cannot order tires from the site.